The Costs and Consequences of Managing Rogue States

by Paul R. Pillar

Many variables are involved in the messy predicaments in the Middle East, but one way of framing the history and issues of U.S. policy toward the region is in terms of the approaches that have been taken toward so-called rogue regimes. That term, one should hasten to add, obscures more than it enlightens. But it has been in general use for a long time. Take it as shorthand to refer to regimes that have come to be considered especially troublesome and are subjected to some degree of ostracism and punishment.

Three basic approaches are available in formulating policy toward such a regime: (1) keep ostracizing and punishing it in perpetuity; (2) try to change the regime; or (3) negotiate and do business with it, to constrain it and to influence its actions. There are some contradictions between the approaches. Any regime that is led to believe that it is going to be overturned anyway, or that it will be perpetually punished anyway, lacks incentive to make concessions in a negotiation.

The approaches that outside powers, especially Western powers and above all the United States, have taken toward Middle Eastern regimes that have come to be considered rogue have varied—not only from one state to another but also over time in the policy toward any one state.

Iraq was subject to punishment for a long time, with the prevailing outlook not involving urgency to try different things. The perspective, as voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell, was that Saddam Hussein was “in his box.” Then suddenly the policy became one of forceful regime change, stimulated by nothing other than such a project has been on the neoconservative agenda and that the surge in militancy in the American public mood after the 9/11 terrorist attack, even though Iraq had nothing to do with that event, finally made realization of that agenda item politically possible.

Libya under Muammar Qaddafi was subject to years of punishment and ostracism. As far as international sanctions were concerned, this did have a specific declared objective: involving the turning over of named suspects in the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Once Qaddafi surrendered the suspects, real negotiation ensued. It resulted in an agreement that ended (while opening up to international inspection) Libya’s unconventional weapons programs and confirmed the Libyan regime’s exit from international terrorism. Then, after an internal insurrection broke out in Libya, the idea took root—first in Western European capitals, although Washington would go along—that the situation should be exploited to intervene on behalf of the rebels and to help overthrow the regime. Regime change supplanted negotiation.

Policy toward Syria has been a mixed bag all along. There has been lots of punishment, but without some of the isolation to which other regimes have been subjected; the United States kept diplomatic relations with Syria even after placing it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Once an internal revolt broke out in Syria, a situation similar to Libya arose, in that some outsiders (principally Gulf Arab states and Turkey) wanted to take advantage of the situation to topple the Assad regime. With Russian and Iranian help, and also for internal reasons, the regime has managed to hang on. But “Assad must go” became a slogan elsewhere, and many in the West took regime change to be an objective. There was negotiation leading to the surrender and disposal of Syrian chemical weapons, but some, including in the United States, did not like that approach. While there has been some backing away from the idea that Assad must go, others outside Syria say that still should be an objective. In short, there has been conflict and controversy, even within the United States let alone in any larger coalition, over just what the objective should be.

Iran has been subject to much punishment in the form of sanctions. Then after Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 there was real negotiation on an important issue. This led to the conclusion and implementation of a multilateral agreement that places limits on, and subjects to international scrutiny, Iran’s nuclear program.

Before turning to a balance sheet regarding the results of these different approaches, some observations are in order about what has too often been overlooked with two of the approaches. The sustained use of punishment in the form of sanctions often has been accompanied by confusion about exactly what the objectives are—if that objective is to be anything besides punishment for punishment’s sake, which does not advance anyone’s interests. An objective might be to make it directly harder for the targeted regime to do certain things, such as to procure advanced military technology. Or it might be to try to provoke an internal revolt, although this rarely works, for several reasons including where the blame for the pain usually falls. Often the rationale for the sanctions is that it is an inducement to get the targeted regime to change its policies. But this does not work unless there is a positive alternative to the negative one of punishment and sanctions, and unless there is a firm expectation that the sanctions will end if the regime chooses a different, specific, identifiable course. And that is what has often been overlooked and missing. This explains the years of failure of imposing sanctions on Iran without providing any positive alternative. If such an alternative had been offered, a nuclear agreement could have been reached years earlier, when Iran’s nuclear program was much smaller.

As for regime change, one needs to reflect first of all on just how irregular and extreme is the notion that if we don’t like someone else’s government, forcefully overthrowing it is to be considered as just another policy option. Such a notion is contrary to tenets of international law and international order than have been in effect since the Peace of Westphalia in the seventeenth century. Also overlooked when regime change is turned to is how other people may have different ideas from our own about what rulers are legitimate and who should get their support—a factor in considering the status of Assad in Syria. Overlooked all too often as well is what comes after the ruler we don’t like is gone. A simple faith that something better is bound to fall into place has led to the problems we have seen in spades in Iraq and Libya.

Now for the balance sheet. The results of regime change in Iraq have been too glaringly bad to need a full recounting. They include a civil war that has never ended and has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, has disrupted the Iraqi economy, and has created enormous flows of refugees and displaced persons. The include the birth of a major terrorist group that we now know as ISIS. And for those who don’t like to see Iranian influence anywhere, the war that toppled Saddam resulted in the single biggest increase in Iranian influence in the region in at least the last couple of decades.

Libya has seen prolonged chaos since the removal of Qaddafi. Contending governments based in different parts of the country have competed for power, with only tentative and fragile progress made recently toward a reconciliation. The economy, despite the oil resources, is in shambles. Instability has been exported from Libya in the form of both men and materiel, and ISIS established in Libya its biggest presence outside of Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, the closest thing to successes have come from the bits of negotiation and diplomacy that have come into play: those involving the Assad regime’s surrender of chemical weapons and some partial and temporary cease-fires. The war in Syria—the war itself, not any particular political outcome in Damascus—has been a major breeder of extremism and the threat of instability spilling over borders. Actions against the regime have brought counteractions not only from external supporters of the regime but also internal players who see the alternatives as worse for them. Moreover, it would be difficult to escape a similar conclusion from the point of view of our own interests—that is, that the most feasible alternatives to the current Syrian regime would not be those hoped-for moderate forces the building up of which always seems to fill short, but instead radical extremists.

The brightest spot in this regional picture is found in the one place where the policy move by the United States, in cooperation with international partners, has been in the direction of negotiation. That involves Iran, and the big result so far has been the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, which certainly is one of the most significant steps in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation. It is just one issue, but an important one. And lest we forget, it was the issue about which anti-Iran activists had for so long been crying most loudly. What comes later in dealings with the Iranian regime will depend in large part on the continued attempts of hardliners in more than one capital, but especially in Washington, to sabotage the nuclear agreement. But at least there has been an unshackling of diplomacy in the Middle East in the sense of establishing, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations, something closer than before to a businesslike dialogue with one of the most significant states about issues of mutual concern (including countering ISIS, an issue on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel).

It should have been apparent, on an a priori basis alone, that overthrowing foreign government we don’t happen to like is not to be considered as just another foreign policy option, even for a superpower. And it should have been apparent that punishment for the sake of punishment doesn’t do anyone any good, beyond registering our dislikes. When we take into account the actual record of results from the different approaches that have been taken toward regimes we choose to call rogue, these conclusions should be all the more obvious.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. Another fine article by the author, but I daresay elements of the US State and Defense Departments, Congress, and both major Presidential candidates, still seek regime change or a serious weakening of Iran, and it has not been expressed more clearly by the latter two than in Hillary Clinton’s own emails and in hers and Donald Trump’s remarks about Iran.

    Furthermore, while the JCPOA may be seen as a negotiating success, it was based on the fiction of an Iranian WMD program and achieved through a process of endless renegotiation, while at the same time subjecting Iran’s infrastructure to invasive cyberattacks and assassinating its nuclear scientists, actions that did not exactly build trust for the Administration’s intentions. Moreover, that lack of trust has since been reinforced by the U.S. refusal to return billions of seized assets, and by Treasury’s retention of financial sanctions against Iran and those who would invest or finance investment in Iran- as well as by allegations that Iran’s ballistic missile tests conducted to ensure its defense are violations of the JCPOA (which by the terms of the agreement they are not).

  2. Another sane and sensible article by Mr. Pillar! Although he clearly means well, he certainly knows that the selective use of the term “rogue states” to refer to the countries that mainly the neocons do not like is very insulting to the countries to which it is applied. By any objective measure, a country that has occupied other people’s lands for decades, that has used terrorism to expel more than two thirds of the original population, that continues its expansion into occupied territories, that oppresses the occupied people, demolishing their homes and taking their land to give to illegal settlers, and implementing apartheid policies, that has attacked every one of its neighbors, some on multiple occasions, that above all possesses weapons of mass destruction must be called a rogue state. However, the debate in America is about how much more aid should be given to that rogue regime. I think enlightened people such as Mr. Pillar should stop using that insulting tem to refer to the countries that have been invaded, thousands of their inhabitants have been killed and their countries destroyed.

  3. I realize that the goal of Mr. Pillar’s article was not to pass judgment on the goals of U.S. intervention in foreign nations, but instead to address the effectiveness of the methods of intervention. But I think the wisdom of intervening and whose interests were being advanced in the example situations also needs discussion. I will ignore for now the claimed purposes of those interventions and deal with the actual reasons instead.

    In Iraq, the U.S. intervention was initially driven primarily by three interests: [i] the Israel Lobby’s desire to break the military back of the Iraqi government; [ii] western bankster’s panic over Iraq’s move to accept payments for oil in Euros rather than dollars; and [iii] a bizarre neocon goal to break OPEC’s back and flood the market with cheap petroleum by privatizing Iraq’s oil resources (the privatization scheme was quickly reversed by political intervention of oil companies’ representatives in the form of former Secretary of State James Baker). None of those drivers were in the interests of the American public.

    In Libya, the primary driver was Gadaffi’s looming success in establishing a Pan-African gold-backed currency that would be the only form of payment that African nations would accept in exchange for extraction of natural resources. That would have been a disaster for the U.S. petrodollar currency, so we can rationally view that war as primarily driven by bankster interests, albeit the American public has an interest in returning the U.S. to a sound currency basis but not via the crash that the Pan-African currency would have caused.

    In Syria, the right-wing leadership of Israel has long had a goal of the balkanization of Syria into three states, Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia that was served by U.S. participation in a proxy war against Syria. Saudi and Qatari interests were also served by the U.S. intervention to block construction of the Iran-Iraq-Syria Friendship Pipeline that would bring the Pars-North Dome condensate field (largest field in the world) natural gas to European markets rather than draining that field from Qatar and shipment to Europe via the Suez Canal. And again, that natural gas would be sold for currencies other than the dollar. Added tot he mix was then Premier Erdogan of Turkey’s desire to restore the Ottoman Empire to its previous dominion and glory. And the Iran government has never been forgiven by the U.S. and U.K. foreign policy wonks for retaking that nation after those two nations had overthrown its government and established a puppet government under Shah Pahlavi in 1953. Short story, none of the motivators for the initiation of the Syrian War by the U.S. were shared by the American public.

    In all three nations, the U.S. initiated illegal wars of aggression and violated the fundamental equality of nations principle of international law by interfering in the internal affairs of another nation. (The U.S. so grossly exceeded the U.N. mandate for military intervention in Libya only to protect civilians with a no-fly zone that the legal shield of the Security Council Resolution provided no legal authorization for the successfully executed regime change mission.)

    So in my view, one need not even reach the issue of methodology; the interventions themselves were prohibited by international law.

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